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Vietnam - 1968

Khe Sahn & the Tet Offensive

1968

The Battle of Khe Sahn

Battle of Khe Sahn US General Westmoreland planned to lure the North Vietnamese into a major battle in which superior American firepower would end the war. He chose an isolated American base at Khe Sahn, near the North Vietnamese border. 5,000 US Marines were stationed there. They were surrounded by between 20,000 and 40,000 North Vietnamese.

On 21 January, the North Vietnamese began a rocket and mortar attack. One rocket landed in the middle of the Marines' main ammunition dump setting off 11,000 rounds of ammunition, destroying the airstrip's navigational aids and setting off canisters of tear gas which filled the base. The bombardment continued for another 76 days.

The Americans made several attempts to destroy the Vietnamese with artillery and air bombardment but had limited success. The Vietnamese made several attempts to overrun the base but were repelled. The Marines had insufficient food and water and were overrun by rats. Eventually, the Vietnamese decided to abandon their attacks. In June, the Americans abandoned the base.


The Tet Offensive

The North Vietnamese also planned to bring the war to an end early in 1968. Late in January, 80,000 communist troops attacked cities and towns throughout South Vietnam. The Communists believed that they could humiliate the South Vietnamese and American troops and break the will of the American people to continue the war.

Early in the offensive, the communists captured the city of Hue. The South Vietnamese reported that as many as 4,700 civilians had been massacred by the communists. This figure has been much disputed and it has even been claimed that most of the causalities were caused by American air bombardment. However, the effect of the reported "massacre" and other civilian casualties was to galvanise the South Vietnamese Army which fought with new ferocity and courage to inflict severe causalities on the communists.

Hue Massacre during the Tet Offensive The Americans, on the other hand, had little involvement in the fighting - so much so as to start rumours in South Vietnam that they supported the communist action against the South Vietnamese people.

The same was not true of the Australian troops who were involved in heavy fighting in Bien Hoa Province where they killed more than 220 enemy and, in re-taking the town of Baria from the Viet Cong, did much to cement the good relations between the Australians and the South Vietnamese people.

The Tet Offensive lasted about a month. After a period of re-grouping, the communists resumed the offensive in May. This time, Americans, as well as the  Australians, were heavily involved in the fighting. 26 Australians were killed and 109 wounded at the battle of Coral-Balmoral during May and June.


The The Battle of Coral-Balmoral

In May 1968, two Australian batallions were deployed in two bases, Coral and Balmoral, about 45 kilometres north-east of Saigon and about 4.5 kilometres apart from each other. The bases were intended to provide firing points for artillery and mortars giving cover for foot patrols targeting enemy forces withdrawing from the city to the north.

The troops arrived at the Coral base late on May 12 and, by nightfall, were only partially dug in, barbed wire hadn't been placed and infantry support was not in position.

Around 3.30 am the next morning, the base was struck by a brief but intense rocket and mortar barrage and attacked, not by exhausted enemy withdrawing from Siagon, but by fresh North Vietnamese Army troops heading towards the city.

Hand-to-hand fighting ensued and the North Vietnamese temporarily captured the 1RAR mortar platoon position. The North Vietnamese attack was eventually repulsed with support from U.S. helicopter gunships. Eleven Australians and least 52 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed that night.

The Coral base was again assaulted in the early hours of May 16. Again the base was penetrated but after a six-hour battle the North Vietnamese were forced to withdraw after suffering heavy losses.

A third attack on the Coral base came on May 22 but was broken up by Australian artillery and mortars.

Centurion tanks arriveing at Coral An attack by two North Vietnamese batallions on the Balmoral base on May 24 but was repelled by Australian infrantry and Centurion tanks which had just arrived in the area. A second major attack was attempted on May 26 but called off after just 30 minutes of heavy Australian mortar, artillery and tank fire.

Fighting continued until June 6 but with diminishing contacts.

The 26 days of the Battle of Coral-Balmoral had been Australia's longest and most costly battle since World War 2. In all, 26 Australians were killed and 109 wounded; 276 North Vietnamese were killed.

The events of early 1968 convinced the American public that their government had been misleading them about the progress of the war and that it was unlikely to end in the near future. This triggered a wave of protests culminating in a march of 500,000 people on Washington in November 1969.

In May 1968, American and North Vietnamese officials met in Paris to arrange peace talks. The talks began in January 1969, after President Johnson ordered the cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam in November 1968.

Troop levels:  
South Vietnamese 820,000
American 536,100
Australian 7,660
New Zealand 520
South Korea 50,000
Phillipines 1,580
Thailand 6,000